An Introduction to Ecphonesis

Ecphonesis (etymologically from the Greek combination ‘ek,’ “out”, and ‘phonein,’ “to speak”, literally signifies “a voice out by crying”), is the expression of emotional feeling by means of a pathetic exclamation. In other words, an outburst of emotional feelings by way of exclamation. CiceroOpens in new window exemplify this device as:

  • “O liberty! – O sound once delightful to every Roman ear! – O sacred privilege of Roman citizenship! – once sacred – now trampled upon.”

The Ecphonesis often consists when the speaker is overwhelmed with emotion, and tends to pour out the feelings but finds himself succumbing to the impact of the emotion, barely unable to articulate his thought only to burst out with exclamation. This is merely an ourburst of words, ignited by emotion, and it’s usually uttered as though any reply were expected.

Classical Examples
  • “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!
    Alas! Alas! I am undone;
    Where am I, miserable wretch?
    Where is my voice scatter’d that now fails me?
    O Fortune, whither art thou fled?
    O this cloud of night,
    Detestable, oppressive…”
    — Prince, Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles
  • “O lots of fight! of thee I most complain;
    Blind among enemies; O! worse than chains,
    Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age.
    Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
    And all her various objects of delight
    Annull’d, which might in part my grief have eas’d.
    Inferior to the vilest now become
    Of man or worm; the vilest here excel me.
    They creep, yet free; I, dark in light expos’d
    To daily fraud, contempt, abuse, and wrong’s
    Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
    In pow’r of others, never in my own;
    Scarce half I seem to live, dread more than half.
    O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
    Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse,
    Without all hope of day!”
    — Milton, Samson Agonistes, line 67.
  • Compassion and pity expressed in the Scripture by use of Ecphonesis:
  • “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people?
    How is she become a widow?”
    Lamentation 1 v 1.
  • Ecphonesis as way of admiration in the scripture:
  • “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!”
    Psalm 84:1
  • Ecphonesis as way of expressing desire:
  • “O that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
    Psalm 55:6

Figures generally are meant to be used judiciously, with sensitivity to the occasion. Likewise we must endeavour to use Ecphonesis with regard to this caution. Never let this figure become cheap and common. If we are upon every trite occasion making exclamations, our audience may be in danger of boredom Opens in new window, or they will be apt to think we mimic, rather than feel a commotion; or the purpose of awakening their passions may be defeated altogether.

In short, let us always bear in mind this rule, never to break out in an exclamation unless the subject or circumstance necessitate it, or our own ardor produces it, lest we deviate and incur the wrath of Horace, as in:

  • Such vain exclaimers are the mark of scorn;
    A mountain labours, and a mouse is born.
Further Readings:
Ad Herennium 4.15.22 ("exclamatio");
Peacham (1577) K4r;
Putt. (1589) 221 ("ecphonisis," "the outcry")